National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

  1. The word "name" is used 25 times in the novel, often in thematically important contexts. What importance does the idea of a name have relative to how the characters define themselves? At what points in the novel do the characters' names seem to mean the most? At what times do they seem to disappear? What do you learn from the differences there?
  2. What do you make of the title of the final chapter? Is it a confession? Is it an appropriate choice of words? Or is Otsuka making a different point?
  3. The author Jose Saramago in his novel Blindness offers that in writing about terrible acts it "would be better to state [the act] openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible." Do you notice any similarities between Otsuka's style and Saramago's prescription? What are the implications for the reader?
  4. Look closely at the descriptions of the home, both before the family leaves and after they return. In what ways has the post-war home become a symbol for the effects of the internment on the family?
  5. Research both the treatment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the treatment of Muslim Americans following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Identify three similarities in the reaction of the American government or the American population to these ethnic groups at these points in history. What conclusions can you draw from your findings?
  6. In cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict's 1946 study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, the author argues that Japan is a "shame culture"—that the agent of social control is the avoidance of shame. Researched during wartime and both widely read and widely criticized since, the book is nevertheless an important study of American attitudes toward Japan at that time.

    In an interview with Kelley Kawano, Otsuka has said that she believes that Japanese Americans have been quiet about the internment "because of the shame" they felt by being labeled as disloyal. What role does shame play in the behavior of the characters in this novel?
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